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Monday, September 27, 2021

The History of The Spanish Armada

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The invincible Armada, or the Great and Glorious Armada, was a large navy of about 130 ships collected by Spain in 1586-1588 to invade England during the Anglo-Spanish War 1585 -1604. The Armada’s expedition took place in May-September 1588, under the command of Alonso Perez de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia.

The invincible Armada was battered by the Anglo-Dutch fleet, consisting of light and maneuverable ships, commanded by Charles Howard, in a series of fights that culminated in the Battle of Gravelin. They distinguished themselves as “pirates of Elizabeth”, the most famous of which is Francis Drake. The battles lasted two weeks. The Armada failed to regroup and left to the north, refusing to invade, and the English fleet followed her at some distance, moving along the east coast of England. Returning to Spain was difficult. The Armada went through the North Atlantic, along the west coast of Ireland. As a result of severe storms, many ships were thrown onto the north and west coast of this island. During the expedition, more than 60 ships were lost.

For some years, the British looted and sank Spanish ships. In addition, Queen Elizabeth of England supported the uprising of the Dutch against Spanish rule. The Spanish monarch Philip II considered it his duty to help the English Catholics in their struggle against the Protestants.

The Plan

The Spanish king ordered the Armada to sail to the English Channel and join the Duke of Parma and his 30,000-strong army stationed in Flanders. These combined forces were to cross the English Channel, land in Essex County, and then march to London. Philip II counted on the fact that the British Catholics would leave their Protestant Queen and move to his side. The plan of the Spaniards, however, was not thoroughly thought out and did not take into account two most important circumstances: the power of the English fleet, and shallow water, preventing the ships from approaching the shore and taking on board the troops of the Duke of Parma.

The leader of the armada was Alvaro de Bazan, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, who was rightfully considered the best admiral from Spain. He was the author of the plan and its first organizer. In the opinion of contemporaries, if he really led the fleet, the outcome of the campaign would have been different. However, in February 1588, the 62-year-old Admiral died; and Philip appointed Alonso Perez de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia. He was a skillful organizer who managed to quickly find experienced captains.

The Campaign

On May 29, 1588, the Armada left Lisbon Harbor. But a storm drove her to the port of La Coruña, located in north-west Spain. There, the Spaniards had to repair the ships and replenish their provisions. Concerned about the lack of food and illness among the sailors, the Duke of Medina Sidonia frankly wrote to the king that he doubted the success of the whole enterprise. But Philip insisted that his admiral firmly adhere to the plan.

When the Armada approached the southwest coast of England, it was met by the English fleet. The parties had the same number of ships, but differing in design. The Spanish fleet consisted of high-flying ships, with many short-range guns. With massive towers on the bow and stern, they resembled floating fortresses, well adapted for boarding combat. The British ships were smaller but more maneuverable. In addition, they were equipped with a large number of long-range guns.

The first clash occurred on July 31, at the Plymouth meridian. Given the great maneuverability and artillery power of the English fleet, the Spanish admiral placed his fleet in a crescent for better protection, placing the most powerful warships with long-range artillery around the edges. In addition, closer to the enemy, he exposed the “vanguard” of the best ships under the command of Rekalde, who took the role of “fire brigade”. From whatever side the enemy approached, this unit could turn around and repel the attack.

Taking advantage of their maneuverability, the British from the outset left the armada to the wind. From this advantageous position, they could attack or evade at will. With the prevailing western winds, this meant that they pursued the armada as it moved the channel, troubling her with attacks. However, they failed to break the defensive order of the Spaniards for a long time.

Throughout the English Channel, both fleets fought several small battles. Plymouth was followed by skirmishes at Start Point, Portland-Bill, and the Isle of Wight. The Spanish defensive position justified itself: the British with the long-range weapons failed to sink a single Spanish ship.

Waiting for a reply from the Duke of Parma, Medina-Sidonia ordered the fleet to anchor at Calais. Taking advantage of the vulnerable position of the anchored Spanish ships, the British sent eight “fire-ships” (ships with combustible materials and explosives) to Armada at night.  Then a powerful wind and a strong current carried them north. They could no longer return to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma.

The next day at dawn the decisive battle took place. Because of a strong storm, the British stopped the attack. The next morning, the Armada, which had exhausted its ammunition, again lined up in the form of a crescent and prepared for battle. No sooner had the British opened fire, than a strong wind and sea current carried the Spanish ships onto the sandy beaches of the Dutch province of Zeeland. It seemed that a catastrophe was inevitable. However, the wind changed direction and drove the Armada to the north, away from dangerous shores. The Duke of Medina-Sidonia had no choice but to stop the campaign in order to save ships and men. He decided to return to Spain by a roundabout route, rounding Scotland and Ireland.

The End

Returning home, for the Armada, was also difficult. Only about 60 (out of 130) ships returned home; losses in sailors were estimated from 1/3 to 3/4 of the number of crewmen. Spain suffered heavy losses. However, this did not lead to the immediate collapse of Spanish maritime power. Nevertheless, the failure of the Armada buried hopes for the restoration of Catholicism in England and the involvement of the latter in one form or another into the orbit of the foreign policy of the Spanish Empire, which also meant the deterioration of the position of the Spaniards in the Netherlands. For England, the defeat of the Armada was the first step toward its future status of “Lady of the Seas”.

Sources:

  • Stenyu R. Treasures of the Invincible Armada
  • Altamira-i-Crevea R. Political hegemony of Spain and its decline
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